Can Bad Music Spoil a Good Film?

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Bridge of Spies is a Spielbergian take on a true Cold War spy story. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer asked by the bar association to provide a nominal defense for a captured Soviet spy (Mark Rylance). Turning an empty gesture for due process into a crusade for the Constitution, Donovan takes the case to the Supreme Court. We’re also introduced to an American spy pilot (Austin Stowell), and, in the second half of the film, we switch locations to Berlin, where Donovan’s asked to negotiate an exchange of spies.The performances are sharp and realistic. Although filmed beautifully by longtime Spielberg DP Janusz Kaminski, because of a misguided devotion to showing the person who’s speaking, there are often too many cuts within a conversation. Adapted from Donovan’s memoir, the script, penned by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman, is spiked with humor. It compresses the narrative and, at times, needlessly dramatizes: there was no hailfire of bullets into Donovan’s home, though he received threatening phone calls for defending a Soviet, nor did Donovan witness East Berliners shot down trying to scale the infamous wall. There’s also the matter of the very neat ending, but these are minor qualms compared to the film’s chief fault: Thomas Newman’s heavy-handed score. For a while Bridge of Spies goes somewhat unaccompanied by music; jazz trickles in when scenes are set at bars or nightclubs, Shostakovich streams in from a prison radio. And then, in one scene, when the spy regails Donovan with a metaphorical anecdote, we’re drowned in Thomas Newman’s score. Henceforth we’re mired in manipulative composition, akin to Newman’s work on Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, as if the on-the-nose way in which Spielberg presents the story is not enough. For a spy story about shadowy machinations such tenderness is off-key.

By Alec Julian & Carrie White 

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